By Susan Shinn
CHINA GROVE ó Three weeks after Andy and Sabrina Caudill moved into their dream home at the Warrior Golf Course, they encountered an unwelcome houseguest: Cancer.
Instead of unpacking and getting settled in, the couple went into battle against Andy’s cancer.
“This is the first time in our married life we’ve had everything under one roof,” Sabrina says.
They had plans to landscape and seed the yard and put everything just so.
“You have a plan, and then things happen,” Andy says.
In February 2007, Andy noticed a growth in his mouth, between his wisdom tooth and his tongue. His doctor wasn’t too concerned, but removed the growth.
When Andy returned for his follow-up appointment, the lymph nodes on the right side of his neck were enlarged.
Five months later, they remained swollen.
A biopsy came back negative, but Andy’s ENT wanted to remove the lymph nodes, just in case.
“On a Friday morning, they called and said, we need you to come in to go over the pathology report,” Andy says.
The couple knew what that meant.
Andy’s preliminary diagnosis was mucoepidermoid carcinoma, a cancer of the salivary gland.
Although he works as a pharmacist at CVS in Jackson Park, he’d never heard of the disease. Although he’d used smokeless tobacco, doctors couldn’t link it to this rare cancer.
Because the cancer had already spread to his lymph nodes, doctors needed to find the tumor of origin.
A PET scan uncovered it ó a tumor at the base of his tongue, on the right side of his mouth. He could barely feel it.
But it was obvious from the scan, Sabrina says.
“There it was.”
From the moment Andy was diagnosed, the couple’s friends and family mobilized.
Andy, 37, and Sabrina, 38, have two children: McKenna, 7, and McGuire, 3.
A friend had taken daughter McKenna to Carowinds on the day of Andy’s diagnosis, but didn’t mention that she knew about it when she dropped McKenna off late that night. Andy was already on the prayer list at her church.
“We wanted prayers as quickly as we could get them,” Sabrina says. “There were hundreds and thousands of people praying for us. You could feel it.”
One of Sabrina’s girlfriends recommended that they get in touch with Nancy Washko of Salisbury, a survivor of a cancer that started in her tonsils.
The three e-mailed back and forth for months, “pages of stuff,” Sabrina says.
“I’m not gonna sugarcoat anything,” Nancy wrote.
“It’s amazed the information she shared with us so we could be prepared,” Sabrina says.
“How long did it take you to return to normal?” the couple asked.
You have to redefine what normal is, Nancy said. You won’t know the same normal again.
Andy had to undergo a 10-hour surgery in October. Doctors would remove the tumor, rebuild his tongue with skin from his left wrist, replace that skin with skin from his right thigh, and perform a tracheotomy.
He was 65 pounds heavier before surgery. He didn’t have quite that much to spare.
Before surgery, Andy says, “I got a sense of peace that I was in the right place. We just all felt fine after that. My biggest fear was my children. It was all about them. It wasn’t a fear of death, it was a fear of them having to go through this.
“He wanted to be here to see them grow up,” Sabrina says.
The couple felt it best that the children stayed home during Andy’s hospitalization.
“You won’t get to see your daddy or talk to your daddy, but he’s OK,” Sabrina told her children.
“They definitely didn’t need to see me,” says Andy, who had more than 100 staples in his neck, stitches on the inside of his mouth, any number of tubes and a cast to immobilize his left arm.
“I wouldn’t look in a mirror,” he says. “I didn’t want to know what I looked like.”
Andy came home to see a banner stretched over the fence from friends at First Methodist Church which read, “Hallelujah!” Those same friends filled their kitchen with helium balloons.
After recovering from surgery, Andy faced radiation five days a week for six weeks.
“This was my outing,” he says, standing on the driveway as the children scream by on their bikes. “We’d pull the chairs out and watch them ride bikes. That was all I could handle.”
Some days, he couldn’t even handle that.
But this is why Andy was so happy to get home.
They called Andy at CVS five days before the procedure was scheduled.
He got so upset that he had to leave work. He spent the next couple of days seeding the yard to keep his mind occupied.
The couple can talk matter-of-factly today about the ordeal, but that wasn’t the case six months ago.
“It was awful,” Sabrina says. “It was a nightmare. Our friends and our church family have been so phenomenal. They say, ‘How do you continue on?’
“The sun comes up and the sun goes down every day. The laundry has to be done. Your life still continues. The world doesn’t stop because you’re in the middle of a traumatic situation.”
Andy had to wear a white plastic mask to hold his head still while he took 15 minutes’ worth of radiation. The first treatment, he broke out in a sweat.
“I knew it was gonna happen, but then it was here and it was happening,” he says.
The skin on his neck got dry and peeled. The burns to his throat and tongue caused blisters and ulcers. His mouth got dry, because the salivary glands on the right side of his mouth got fried.
It took up to 30 minutes ó and all the willpower he had, his wife says ó to choke down a can of Ensure.
These days, he drinks 500-calorie Carnation Instant Breakfast.
“I crave that stuff now,” he says.
He’s slowly able to eat solid food again. He’d like to gain another 20 to 25 pounds.
“I’m wearing my 15-year-old nephew’s hand-me-downs,” he says, looking down at his 30-inch waist, his belt cinched tight.
January 23 was a good day. That was the day Andy left Baptist with the white mask. You don’t take it home unless you’ve finished treatment.
There have been good days since.
The father-daughter dance he attended with McKenna in February. Going to church at Easter with his family.
And there have been bad days.
Andy is only able to work part-time hours.
“That’s what’s frustrating,” he says. “I wake up and I feel fine. Your mind wants to do it but your body won’t let you.”
Still, he says, he knows he’s gone through this experience for a reason.
He watches his kids play with the white mask.
McKenna dons it and lies down on the floor, suddenly still.
Andy watches, a haunted look in his eyes.
The day Sabrina’s father finished chemotherapy was the day Andy was diagnosed with cancer. The day Andy finished radiation was the day Sabrina learned her father was no longer in remission from leukemia.
“That was God telling me, I took care of your Daddy, and I’m gonna take care of your husband ó and vice versa,” she says.
On Father’s Day at church, Andy will speak about his experience.
“They were people of faith whose faith was tested,” says their pastor, the Rev. Vance Lowe.
Lowe was impressed that Andy played the role of Thomas ó as he’s done for years ó in the church’s Last Supper drama this spring.
“As he was doing his part, it was really touching to me that he had the desire and the willingness to continue on,” he says.
“I don’t ever think I’ll be less emotional about it,” Andy says of his experience. “When I talk in Sunday school, I’m different now. It’s amazing how different you look at life now.
“I don’t know if I would undo it. I’ve endured a lot, but I’ve gained a lot.”
“I think he’s been stronger than I’d ever imagined,” Sabrina says.
Contact Susan Shinn at 704-797-4289 or email@example.com.